Rethinking Design Thinking

As design thinking and human centered design become the hot new buzzwords in the donor community, it is time to examine their intent, purpose and value. In 2019, it would almost be considered a sin to challenge the notion of human-centered design. Therefore, I will not. I would, however, challenge the notion that these concepts are in any way new.

One of the sessions at a recent HCD conference required us to profile a typical ‘designer’ and graphically portray what his/her Instagram post would look like. My swashbuckling, time-traveling, free-spirited designer, Elma, who constantly talks about future tech posted this…the evolution of the Neolithic arrowhead.

It is true. The first set of Neolithic tools, from advanced flint stones to arrow heads, were developed using the basic tenets of human centered design thinking — ideate, prototype, iterate and, critically, make them relevant for their intended use. Usage-based iterative design evolution has always existed and always will. But one thing has changed since the Neolithic times. While the neoliths were both users and the designers of their own tools, in the modern world, with large scale populations, societies and economies, there is a separation between the designer of solution and the user of solution leading to the need for human-centered design.

What the HCD experts (read firms) are doing in the modern age is codifying an age-old system to fast track innovation. And the results of its use are visible from the high-tech world of Silicon Valley, USA to the rural wastelands of Samastipur, India. However, the codification of this process and the rise of HCD as an industry leads to two fundamental paradoxes (and a third one covered in the next blog):

1. Does codifying the process of innovation contradict the idea of innovation (that requires constant breaking of existing codes and challenging of status quo)?

2. How can solutions adapt to humans when humans constantly adapt to the solutions?

Codified systems when raised to the level of custom (as has been the case with HCD) tend to undermine people behind the process. While human-centered iterative design evolution has existed forever, we know that not all designs are same and not all designers are same. Using the HCD process does not guarantee great ideas, just as using the impressionist style of painting does not make you Van Gough. Almost all Silicon Valley firms use HCD, yet over 90% of new products continue to fail. To attribute all good design to HCD is not only erroneous but also dangerous. People matter in the process…a lot. Getting a wrong set of people into an HCD process can kill the process itself or, at the least, result in very few good ideas

The leap from problem to innovation involves not just deductive thinking processes but also inductive processes that requires a combination of creative thinking, experience and intuition (remember how that idea just sprung in your head in the loo?). Unfortunately, donors and implementers in the development sector have started ‘buying’ the process, almost believing that the ideas and innovations will be a natural outcome of the process. iPod, iPhone and iPad were brilliant innovations. Would all design thinking firms be able to design all of these products just by using the process? The use of HCD process (and more critically, the principles) is an essential condition for good design of programs, solutions and products but not a sufficient condition.

Brilliant creative minds produce great ideas, not processes. Processes can only aid the people, just as HCD can and does. But, brilliant creative minds are a highly specialized group, a scarce resource and need to be sought with determined will. Which also implies that users (who are not specialist creatives) are only part of the solution. And that brings us to the second paradox.

HCD processes assume that ideas, solutions and innovations should adapt to human needs and actions and therefore puts users at the center of the process. This is exactly the way all design should be. Unfortunately, there is a small catch. Humans constantly evolve, change and adapt based on the ideas and products they get exposed to. Earlier, I used to ask for directions from taxi drivers and people standing on the street. Now, I ask google maps. In fact, I also ask google maps how long it will take for me to get from my house to the hospital. Earlier I used to ask such things from my dad. I changed my behaviors as I discovered what google maps can do for me. At the same time google maps, using advanced machine learning and big data, is incessantly evolving with me, bringing new features that I have not yet imagined as a user. HCD, then, is not a one cycle process. It is a never ending evolutionary process where solutions adapt to people…and people evolve with the solutions. Just as it was during the Neolithic period.

So, do we really need HCD firms to give us one big bang solution?

The answer is: No, but…

Design thinking process should not be used to provide one Big Bang idea. Neither should design firms be asked to provide one. They should be hired to facilitate innovation till such time, the implementing agencies do not have the creative capacity (eventually every organization will need that in order to survive and grow). Therefore, you should always look out for firms with the best creative minds in the business, not just the best process managers. You should hold them accountable not just for the idea but for scale too and, most critically, you must never think that human-centered design is a one-shot project. It is a never-ending cycle of evolution and adaptation and change. We have to be neoliths on steroids, with creativity as our drug.

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Siddhartha Swarup

Siddhartha Swarup

A communication specialist, an entrepreneur, writer and a serial innovator. An MBA by education, he has worked across 17 countries in 5 continents.